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The Evolution of the Office
November 8th, 2017

If historians of the future are looking to establish what was important to the UK in the early 21st Century, one glance at the skyline of the capital will make things fairly obvious. Where once the dome of St Paul’s stood tall in domination of the cityscape, it’s now offices – the Shard, the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater that stand resplendent. But as the gig economy continues to thrive, could it be that the culture of office space we’ve cultivated in recent years is on it’s way to extinction?

The traditional workplace, as we know it now, is perceived to be a fairly modern offering, but in fact, it’s a construct which dates back as far as Roman times. With a massive empire to organise, the Romans ran their “business” from the forum at the centre of each town, which was home to shops, offices and government offices. It’s the Latin word ‘officium’ for these spaces, loosely translated to mean ‘bureau,’ which gave us the word the English language uses for workplaces now.

If you fast forward a few thousand years, you’ll find one of London’s very first purpose built offices on Leadenhall Street in the form of the old East India Company building, built in 1729. Much like Rome, the EIC had a lot to organise, and they did so from their headquarters in the heart of the capital. Jump forwards in time again and 1906 saw the introduction of the open plan office space as designer Frank Lloyd Wright created the Larkin Administration Building in New York, where he aimed to create a factory style environment for administrative and managerial workers.

And the evolution has continued from the 1900’s, with more and more businesses running their work from formal office spaces. In 1964 (though there were certainly advances and developments in the interim), Robert Propst designed the first office cubicle as an antidote to the stress and distraction of Wright’s open plan office and as a way for business to cram more and more people into small spaces.

But despite the ongoing investment into office skyscrapers in the city, there’s no doubt that the working world is changing, and the needs of workers along with it. Advances in technology, the adoption of flexible working policies and the rise of the freelancer mean that fewer people are finding it essential to be tied to a desk 9-5, five days a week. The internet, laptops and mobile phones all make it possible for most employees to work wherever they want or need to – from their bedroom to their favourite cafe, on their commutes to meetings, from the kitchen table after the kids have gone to bed. We no longer need an office to work from. Not only that, but the developments surrounding artificial intelligence and automation looks set to shake up the where and ways we work even further.

So is the office dead? Are co-working spaces, cafes and makerspaces the future of the working world? Have the forums for innovation moved from skyscrapers to the sofa? Will robots be doing our jobs in the future? And what does that mean for businesses in Midtown? One thing is for certain – we’ve come a long way from the Roman’s and the East India Company’s approaches to work and where we’re going next is a mystery to be explored.

Join us and our panel of experts from the business industry as we unpick these issues on 29th November from 6.30pm at WeWork Waterhouse Square, in partnership with The Evening Standard. Sign up today.